Alison Macleod’s latest novel concerns itself with DH Lawrence, his strange relationship with his wife Frieda, and the long, long shadow cast by his final novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For the uninitiated, the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was only published in an extremely limited run in the author’s lifetime; it wasn’t until decades later that Penguin Books took on the High Courts and won the right to publish it as it was meant to be read.
By some way Macleod’s largest book to date, Tenderness (itself an early title for Lawrence’s book) works hard to give you all angles of this story, travelling in time from Lawrence’s death in Vence, France, to the tail end of him writing The Rainbow, where he and Frieda lived with the Meynells, a beneficent and seemingly supportive wealthy family (a debt Lawrence later repaid in a rather bitter and cruel fashion). It was here, enjoying the company of other writers and various high-ups that he first gets the idea for what later became Lady Chatterley’s Lover; or rather it is here that she spies a woman on a far-off hilltop, a woman who comes to interest and obsess him, a woman who in time becomes Constance Chatterley.
But there’s more to Tenderness than just DH Lawrence. There is, as we said, the shadow cast by the book itself. And so we also spend time in the company of Jackie Kennedy, whose husband is running to be President. She is spotted by Harding, a somewhat down on his luck FBI man attending a court hearing about a possible US publication of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover and, as the result of a bit of tricky photography using a camera straight out of James Bond, comes to the attention of one J Edgar Hoover – who is not, it should be clearly stated, a fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And so Hoover extends an opportunity to our down and out FBI man who ends up at the end of Jackie Kennedy’s path spying on her and reporting back at the end of each day.
Just as the lives of Jackie Kennedy and Harding weave one about the other, so the lives of Lawrence and the Meynells weave one about the other. Macleod immerses us in the ebb and flow, the bubble and chatter of the Meynell’s social whirl. But that’s not all. Later on in the book we meet Dina, herself a grand daughter of one of the aforementioned Meynells, who has herself grown up in a world where people don’t mention DH Lawrence (as a result of his perceived betrayal) and so has, as you’d expect of a young woman coming from a starry, literary background, been drawn to Lawrence’s flickering flame. In the last quarter of the book, the novel extends its arms further to encompass a handful of the people who led the way on trying to get the unexpurgated version published in a form that was cheap enough for the average man on the street to buy.
As you’d no doubt expect from Alison Macleod, it’s beautifully written and thrums with indignation, both at the kinds of tired minds that would stop Lawrence being published but also at the kind of England in which we now find ourselves. This is Lawrence, for example:
“He was dying of chagrin, of defeat, of a smashed heart. England was killing him. His love for it. His loathing of it. Fuck it, fuck his countrymen with their atrophied imaginations and their withered bollocks. Fuck his own heart for wanting it so.”
Elsewhere, we have “this terrifying, new and gruesome England” where “Hostilities breed, and everywhere… politicians stoke fear and resentment.” Characters “hate England for all its enforced ‘places’: its subservience; its infinite, tacit hierarchies; its taut smiles and shimmering resentments.” And:
“Healing would never spring from horror. A broken country knew only how to go on breaking, and it risked being forever at the mercy of opportunists, industrialists and political predators. Words alone – honest words, compassionate words, respectful exchanges – could begin to mend it.”
Macleod is, in our view, definitely on the right side of history (opposing censorship, cocking a snook at the kinds of people who are in power right now) and Tenderness is epic in all senses of the word. If we were to levy one minor criticism, it might be that, as beautiful and as well-researched and as towering an achievement as the book is, there is a sense in which, at times, it can come to seem edifice-like, something to be admired rather than something that takes the reader on a journey. Intellectually, it’s an achievement; but in my heart, in my blood – given that this is a book about Lawrence, a writer who, for good and ill, sought always to plunge his hands wrist deep in the soil of life and roll around like a happy pig in its fecundity – there were times when the book remained a book (when I wanted it to come alive and burn the tips of my fingers with all of the life contained herein).
Any Cop?: Like Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness, Tenderness is a book that will undoubtedly be of interest to Lawrence fans – but irrespective of whether you rate Lawrence or not, it’s worth your time to read some exquisite writing and equally exquisite sensitivity to the age in which we find ourselves.